The Nintendo Switch, or how I learned to stop worrying and learned to love buying consoles

The Nintendo Switch is out and I am pretty pumped about it. I haven’t purchased one yet, so my exuberance may wane a bit once I do.

My preference for video gaming systems is much like my political affiliation: I pretty much hate everything.

I love video games, but I am normally not fond of video gamers. As a community, the toxicity is palpable, so the online experience just isn’t a factor for me. I prefer to play video games with people that I know in the real world, so for me the Playstation and the XBox are roughly equal, and the Nintendo has a real advantage over the others.

In my mind, Nintendo is a completely different category of gaming from the PC, XBox, or Playstation. In time, I usually end up with all 4 systems. I just usually wait for a few years to pick up the current PS or XBox. As of this writing, I still don’t have an XBone or PS4 and I am thinking about skipping them. Sure there are exclusives that I could be missing, but honestly, I don’t really care. I still play tons of Skyrim, so I am not really missing much.

The reason that I think of Nintendo as a wholly different platform than all others is that the Nintendo pushes the envelope for hardware, not necessarily for video games. Sure, they have a roster of characters, and a few franchises that you can bank on for release on new platforms. The craziest example has to be controlling a game with bongos.

While bongos were probably the riskiest idea, the Wii had to be the most successful. The idea of using movement to interact with a game was duplicated by every other console. The Wii U added the ability to use the tablet to play “real” console games that ran on another machine, essentially ushering in the idea of streaming games. The nVidia shield and it’s various competitors owe Nintendo for introducing the concept to the living room. Now Nintendo is taking its act on the freeway?

I know it’s easy to dismiss the Nintendo as gimmicky, and targeted at kids. I play a fair amount of Nintendo games with my kids. A common Friday night activity at our house for the two older kids was popping a bunch of popcorn and the whole family playing Mario Party or Mario Kart. Now I am looking forward to the day when we can do the same with the two little ones. Just because the stable of characters is popular with kids doesn’t mean that it’s not a serious platform. Nintendo’s decision to make the tablet the center of the gaming experience is an interesting one. I am eager to see the long term effects it has on gaming and computing.

I can’t praise Nintendo’s bold visions without also talking about Microsoft’s lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong, I like the XBox, it’s well executed and represents the height of console gaming design. The MS vision is many things, but it is not bold. MS seems to prefer taking known entities and perfecting them, much like Apple does with mobile phones. Playing shooters or fighting games on the XBox is great, but the price point for that experience is extreme. The XBone is still around $250 even though it’s pushing 4 years in age and an upgrade is on the horizon.

Cub Linux as a kid’s computer

zoey_compOne of the things that my daughter wanted for Christmas was to be able to play some of the web games she’s seen on TV. I have a strict policy about not letting anyone touch any of my computers, so I rehabilitated an old HTPC for her to use.

The PC portion was mostly incidental; her main gift was her cool keyboard, cool mouse, awesome Pepa Pig headphones, and of course, her game subscription.

The donor PC was an old Intel Atom box with 2gb of RAM. This basically made Windows impossible. I toyed with the idea of using Lubuntu, but then I came across Cub Linux. It’s basically a lightweight version of Linux that boots to the Chromium browser. It’s like an [more] open source version of Chrome OS.

Getting the machine setup was fairly straight forward. I set it to auto-login and to go to sleep after a half hour. She knows how to turn the monitor off, that’s good enough for a 4 year old. I also installed VNC media player so she can watch cartoons that I have downloaded for her.

I almost always install Samba on Linux machines because it makes it easy to move files from Windows. The process is documented fairly well here. I just shared out the home directory like before so I could put videos in the Videos folder.

old_linux_screenieOne problem with kids’ computers, especially for kids that are learning to use a computer while also learning to read, is that they need constant assistance. I use SSH for the low level operating system stuff, but a lot of it is just her not yet knowing what to do when something pops up on the screen. So I decided to share the desktop so I didn’t have to get up and walk over to the PC just to click OK or type in a password. One of the best tools for remote access to a Linux desktop is VNC.

VNC is a technology that I have been using off and on for years. I even used it on Windows in the NT and Win2K days before RDP basically obsoleted it. Every now and then VNC comes in super handy.

There are a number of ways to set up VNC, and a number of packages that deliver its functionality. Basically, you can run multiple X Window servers that let multiple users have graphical desktops at the same time. It can be super confusing for Windows users, so bear with me. Unix is multi-user. It’s meant to be used by multiple people at the same time. These users may be sitting at one or more physical consoles, virtual consoles, or remote shells. VNC is one way to get a graphical (window that you click with a mouse) console remotely on a system. You start a VNCserver on a given display x (:1, :2, :3. etc.) and then connect a VNC client to it on TCP port 509x (5091 for :1, 5092 for :2). Multiple users can run multiple servers and launch pretty much any number of graphical shells.

octopod_screenieVNC is awesome, but a kid computer is seriously single user. What I need is to be able to pull up her Linux desktop on my [often] Windows desktop, without any intervention from her, and without getting up from my desk. She is still learning to use a computer, so I want to demonstrate things on her screen. Not getting up from my desk is important because she needs assistance fairly often. Also, I happen to be a lazy slug.

Fortunately, there is a tool for doing this known as X11VNC. The key difference for X11VNC is that it shares the physical console display, :0, which is the display of the user sitting at the keyboard. This is ideal because when I connect to her computer, I see what she’s seeing, and either of us can type or move the mouse.

To set up X11VNC, I first had to get the software installed from repos:
sudo apt-get install x11vnc

After you’ve installed it, you want to create a remote access password and then edit the config to start at boot. I use the same password for the remote session that I use to log into the user account. Thanks to the auto login, no one but me should ever have to type it in.
sudo x11vnc –storepasswd /root/.vnc/passwd
sudo nano /etc/init/x11vnc.conf

Then paste this into the editor:

# description "Start x11vnc on system boot"

description "x11vnc"

start on runlevel [2345]
stop on runlevel [^2345]

console log

respawn limit 20 5

exec /usr/bin/x11vnc -auth guess -forever -loop -noxdamage -repeat -rfbauth /root/.vnc/passwd -rfbport 5900 -shared

Then you can use any VNC Viewer to access the desktop remotely by entering the IP for the computer. My personal favorite viewer is tight-vnc.

With the remote access portion set up, I am now able to help her with her computer without getting up from mine. She has discovered that we can both type on the same computer at the same time, so a game has emerged. One of us types in a text editor and the other tries to delete what the other has written. It’s a race to either type or delete gibberish and she laughs like a maniac when we play it.

The Drama With My New Laptop: the High Cost of Saving $350 (part 2)

This post contains a lot of profanity. Like a shitload.

When we last left our heroes, I had finally gotten Windows working on an SSD after trying a bunch of things, and then basically giving up and then reinstalling everything. Now that the SSD was working, the time had come to encrypt the SSD.

I am a fan of block crypto. I encrypt lots of things, not because I am worried about the government seizing my gear (well, not *that* worried) but because gadgets get lost and stolen. I lost my mobile phone a couple of years ago, and if I hadn’t encrypted it, it would have been nerve wracking worrying about what someone might do with the data that’s on it. So rather than worry about what is or isn’t protected, I just encrypt the whole drive. Full drive encryption is important because Physical Access is Total Access. I have rescued untold amounts of data for others from their crashed or otherwise misbehaving hard drives by removing them and plugging them into a different computer. I don’t normally encrypt the drives on my gaming rigs because if the FBI or whomever needs my Goat Simulator game saves that badly, they are welcome to them. This was a special case because it’s a gaming laptop. My rule is that if it leaves the house, it has to be encrypted.

Modern computers use UEFI to “securely” boot the operating system. I guess this is a security measure to prevent someone from booting your laptop from a CD and stealing all your shit, but since this laptop doesn’t have a Trusted Platform Module, Secure Boot doesn’t protect you from someone plugging your drive into another computer and stealing all your shit, I think it’s more trouble that it’s worth. If you have to ask Windows for permission to boot off a CD, it’s just going to stop the user from doing what he or she wants, it will not stop Proper Villainy(tm).

My favorite disk encryption tool, TrueCrypt, vanished under mysterious circumstances. I won’t get into the conspiracy theories behind its demise, but I have decided to keep encrypting my drive, and that leads me to the next chapter of this saga, where I get punished for using the basic version of Windows.

Part 2 – Solid State Drama’s Revenge

I prefer to run Windows on laptops because of all the bullshit proprietary hardware that goes into them. I am probably showing my age here, but there was a time when hardware support in Linux was spotty. I have swapped out Intel WiFi card for an Atheros cards in laptops to make sure I can do packet injection, but I now have a dedicated Kali laptop for that sort of thing. For my daily driver/EDC laptop, life is just easier with Windows. I know that that fucking with Linux makes a lot of dudes feel superior, and they probably are. For me, I prefer to use Linux for specific tasks (i.e. Kali and Clonezilla) or for servers. With that being said, I am not such a Windows fanboy that I care about the differences between Windows versions. My personal laptop won’t be joining an Active Directory domain, so I just go with whatever version came with my laptop, which I replaced with whatever version MS let me download when I migrated to the SSD.

This path of least resistance philosophy led me to entertain thoughts of using BitLocker to encrypt my hard drive, only I am not running Windows 8.1 Professional or Enterprise, so I guess that BitLocker isn’t included with my version. There is no fucking way that I’m forking over $150 for a new version of Windows after working so hard to save $200 on the RAM and SSD. No TrueCrypt? Fine. No BitLocker? Whatever. I don’t give a fuck. I’ll just use a fork of TrueCrypt called VeraCrypt. Well, VeraCrypt’s boot loader doesn’t play nicely with UEFI and GPT partitions. It only works on MBR disks. feelsbadman.jpg

So after days of messing with various tools to get Windows working on my SSD, and then enduring the hassle of setting up Windows all over again, and waiting on my Steam library to download again, I am faced with yet another hard disk challenge: converting my GPT partitioned drive to MBR without deleting anything. Honestly, now that Steam is in the Debian repos, I am sorely tempted to make my next gaming rig run Linux.

I tried a bunch of things and ended up using the pirated AOMEI tool to do the conversion, and it worked, sort of. The drive booted, and VeraCrypt didn’t bitch about GPT anymore. However, when I went to back up the drive one last time before encrypting it, I discovered that AOMEI half-assed the conversion. According to Clonezilla, my drive had some remnant of the GPT boot stuff left on it that I had to fix with the Linux version of fdisk for GPT, a.k.a gdisk. I have screwed up plenty of working partitions with fdisk, so I was nervous to say the least. Also, the magical -z option that I needed to was buried in the “expert” menu section (AKA Here There Be Dragons!) which added to the danger. Clonezilla said to run gdisk -z but -z isn’t a valid option from the command line.

I read this tutorial to figure out what had to be done, and in the end I just closed my eyes, clenched up my butt cheeks, and hit enter. I got it working, and thankfully I had already made plenty of backups, just in case. Speaking of backups, I should find a way to make running Clonezilla easier…

Update 8/16 – A few months ago, I tried migrating to Win10, but it was a shitshow. I just pirated Win10 Pro (thanks to KMSPico portable, JFGI) and used BitLocker without a TPM. This was less stressful since I set up easy bare metal backups in Part 3.

Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion in Part 3 – Making Backups Easy to do is Hard 🙂

The Drama With My New Laptop: the High Cost of Saving $350 (part 1)

This post contains a lot of profanity. Like a shitload.

I bought a new laptop a month ago, which for me is like moving to a new apartment. Getting it set up the way that I want it has been a total pain in the ass. Mostly because I have decided to save money by implementing key features myself, but also because the relentless march of progress in the PC market has left me behind. This was an uncharacteristic purchase for me, but I wanted a powerful laptop that I could write, code, play games, and run multiple VMs on. In short, I violated my first rule of personal computing, which is to use dedicated computers for specific tasks.

The goals were:

  1. Be made mostly of aluminum – my laptops tend to have case or hinge problems before they have actual hardware problems, although when they do have hardware problems, it’s almost always the hard drive.
  2. Be ready for anything – have 16gb of RAM, an SSD, USB3.0 and a high end GPU
  3. Have a big screen and full size keyboard – this is replacing a full-sized laptop
  4. Have ample storage – I also bought a caddy to go into the CDROM bay to house a second hard drive
  5. Be encrypted – I normally don’t keep important things on laptops, or gaming rigs, but this is my main computer now
  6. Be backed up regularly – I am not usually a stickler for backups because I use several computers. But with this machine, I want to be able to do a full disk image fairly easily

I have built enterprise servers in less time than I have spent tweaking this fucking laptop. I have more or less achieved all of my goals at the considerable expense of my time and possibly my sanity. There are three major sources of my discontent. The first is that copying a Windows install to a smaller drive is wildly difficult and Asus makes the process even more so. The second, is that Modern versions of Windows are not very friendly with the block crypto tools that I trust. The third is that because I decided to remove the optical drive, I wanted dual-boot Windows with my favorite cloning tool, Clonezilla.

Part 1 – Solid State Drama
I went with the Asus N550jx because it is a mostly aluminum mid-range gaming laptop with a big screen, full size keyboard with keypad, and a touch screen. I can sort of take or leave touchscreens on laptops, but my wife is a fan. I like for she and I to have the same model of laptop. That way, when she runs into problems, I am already very familiar with the hardware and software she is using. The N550jx comes in two models: one with 8GB of RAM and a 1TB mechanical HDD, and one with 16GB of RAM and a 240GB SSD. Both models have the same processor, GPU, screen, and case, and I was able to price another 8GB of ram and a 250GB SSD for almost half the price of the difference between the two models, for a savings of roughly $200. It was a mistake brilliant idea!

#5 Torx bits? On a 6lb laptop? Who does that?Getting the upgrades installed was a series of misadventures. The first obstacle was that for no good goddamn reason, Asus decided to use #5 Torx screws on the chassis. I have plenty of star bit screw drivers from working on Compaq computers back in the Dark Ages, but no #5’s. So what any red-blooded All American Man would do. First, I went on the Internet and complained, and then I ordered yet another set of screwdriver bits from Amazon.

holy shit! i got it working!With the SSD and RAM in place, it was time to get the OS off the mechanical drive onto the SSD. In the past, moving an install of Windows was simply a matter of shrinking partitions with GParted and cloning them with Clonezilla. With the Asus N550jx and Windows 8.1, there is a bunch of bullshit associated with hidden restore partitions with weird flags and whatnot. It is this bullshit that thwarted my countless attempts to migrate the partitions correctly. I even used pirated copies of notable commercial disk cloning tools like Norton Ghost and AOMEI with little success. After a few days of trial and error, I ended up just doing a clean install of Win8 on the SSD. Fortunately, Microsoft lets you create your own install media from an activated Windows system, and Asus is kind enough to make drivers and utilities available on their website for download. So after much installing of software, I had a working OS on the SSD.

All of this trial and error is why I am a huge fan of bare metal backups. I have used all manner of tools and other nonsense to back up Windows and/or data, and the only thing that is truly reliable is dumping the entire drive to an image file on a separate drive. Copying data always leads to missed files, and snapshots and restore points become corrupted especially when malware is involved. Rolling an infected PC back to a restore point is the fastest way to get rid of malware, so most crackers wipe out your restore points as part of the exploit process. Because of this, I don’t really care about recovery partitions, or restore points, or any of that other bullshit. If my laptop eats itself, I just want to roll it back to where it was just before the last time I tried to do something stupid to it. I understand that your typical consumer isn’t familiar with imaging hard drives, and that is why those other tools exist, but for me it’s Clonezilla or GTFO.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Solid State Drama’s Revenge 🙂

Video Games and Depression

Ispidey_skyrim have battled with clinical depression for most of my adult life. The primary reason that I have maintained a weblog in one form or another is that writing is one of the ways that I deal with my depression. I also play video games. Writing and exercise are positive things that help me to feel productive. Video games are a tricky balance. In moderation, gaming helps me vent frustrations, much like exercise does. If I am not careful, however, gaming can go off the rails, and become basically the only thing that I do, outside of the bare essentials like not getting fired from work and keeping the children alive.

About 12 years ago I was working this horrible job as a help desk agent, taking borderline abusive tech support calls from cognitively-impaired corporate lusers. I was completely miserable and when I started playing Asheron’s Call, I slipped into full-blown video game addiction. My work day consisted of working on auto-pilot while surfing Maggie the Jackcat’s website for quests to run and items to craft. I would then stay up all night running various toons through said quests, and crafting said items. I even wrote a blog chronicling my adventures. It was pathetic 🙂 Then suddenly, I burned out on AC and when I stopped playing, I suddenly realized how miserable I was at work, and invested my energy into finding a new job.

A few years later, I got into City of Heroes pretty seriously. I was especially into multi-boxing and at one point, I was running 8 toons at once. Multiboxing turned my altaholism into a superpower. While I logged many hours playing CoH, it was not nearly as life-consuming as AC.

Today, my drug of choice is Skyrim. In many ways it’s less compelling than an MMO, but the story has caused me to have more than a few spiritual and philosophical reflections. One idea in particular is the attitude of many NPCs that the prophecy of the return of the dragons makes the end of the world a foregone conclusion. In the context of the game, if you are going to affect change, you are fighting not only dragons and undead, you are also fighting a culture of apocalyptic pessimism. As a parable for combating depression, I can’t think of a better interactive story.